Studs Terkel on How to Interview Someone

Listen; prepare, but have a conversation instead of conducting an interview. Plus: Terkel with Nelson Algren, and talking about Richard J. Daley.

The most memorable letter that recently former editor Richard Babcock received during his tenure as editor of Chicago came after a December 1993 issue featuring a naked woman on the cover. According to Babcock, the issue was a newsstand dud, perhaps surprisingly. Which is a shame, as I happened across it—it’s hard to miss—earlier today, and the cover package linked to the cheesecake was pretty interesting, featuring advice from well-known Chicagoans.

Not all of it’s great—notably, Rahm Emanuel’s answer to the question how do you ask for money?: “Just ask.” But I did really appreciate Studs Terkel’s answer to the question “how do you get someone to open up about his life?”

They’ve got to believe you’re interested. If it’s a writer of a book, you’ve got to have read his book thoroughly. Or a person who is just an anonymous person—say for one of my books, say this guy is a carpenter—I’ll ask him about his life and as he’s talking I’m listening. I don’t have written questions. It’s a conversation, not an interview. “And then what did you do?” No! “Just tell me about…"—and you start, sort of like you’re having a cup of coffee or a drink, so it’s informal and very easy. Out of that things are revealed.

If you want to hear it in practice, StudsTerkel.org has lots of recordings from his radio program and his oral history projects.

Here’s Terkel with Nelson Algren, courtesy of MediaBurn:

And talking about Richard J. Daley:

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